electronic digital signage

Lighting Sign Cabinets in the 21st Century

Ron Farmer is the CEO of US LED, a Houston-based manufacturer of sign and general lighting products he founded in 2001. Though best known in that role, Ron also started a sign company in 1980 which he grew to be one of the top producing national sign companies before he sold it in 2011. Ron can be reached at rfarmer@usled.com.

Fluorescent History

Twelve years ago, sign cabinets were predominately illuminated just one way—with fluorescent lamps. There were some exceptions, like HID lamps with baffles, but most sign guys used fluorescent lamps.

The process was well understood and the standards were agreed upon by most in the sign business. One row of lamps placed down the center of a double-faced sign on one-foot centers; with two rows being used only when the cabinet was exceptionally deep.

Early Cabinet LEDs

Then in 2005 the LED upheaval that was assaulting the neon-lit channel letter began to visit cabinet lighting. White LEDs were then already available but the lifetime of those products made them impractical. They produced too little light, and dimmed to uselessness much too quickly. The move to lighting sign cabinets was made possible with the introduction of the first one-watt white LED by Lumileds—the first white LED with a long enough life to make using white LEDs worthwhile.

By today's standards, those first white LEDs and their delivery systems were crude and costly. In the summer of 2005, even for a purchase of 10,000, just the LED emitter at the manufacturer’s cost was $4.25. And that was a large buy at that point. Worse yet, there was a requirement to take six color bins, only two of which were truly white. A two-LED module with two emitters and on-board power source producing only 50 lumens sold to distribution for $27.50. It seems incredible any were purchased but there were buyers even at those prices and performance levels.

All of that changed quickly, when South Korea-based Seoul Semiconductor came to America that Christmas introducing a similar white LED emitter costing $2.75. That cut the module price substantially and soon there were modules below $10. That began to make lighting cabinet signs with LED modules much more practical. The rapid reductions in prices are a blessing bestowed by those intrepid first movers that fund all innovations, and demonstrate the power of the free market.

Today: Lower Costs, Higher Quality

Here we are a dozen years on and LED modules for channel letters cost so little that it is hard to remember what white neon used to cost. Or, that neon took so much work to install, that it tended to dim in the cold, and would often break in transit.

LEDs have made lighting channel letters simple and inexpensive to produce. And, that includes inexpensive to run. A customer recently asked what it costs to power a set of their five-foot letters per hour. If run for six hours a night, the cost is less than $14 per hour per year. That means to run that sign six hours per night only costs $7 per month. Who imagined the full effect of the transformation in 1999 (the first year I remember seeing LEDs at the ISA)?

What's Next?

That simple calculation is an insight into the oft-asked question, “What comes after LED lighting?” It is unclear what the incentives are to introduce a competing technology. What are the weaknesses of LED lighting that the new technology would overcome to justify the development and marketing costs?

LED costs are low and trending down. They are reliable, hard to break, safe to use and require little energy. A new technology has little initial purchase price to work with and even if it would save half the energy of an equivalent LED solution, the savings would be insignificant. And energy savings accrues to the end user, not the lighting purchaser. So the incentives to consider a replacement for LED sign lighting are weak at best. But my money bets that incentives do exist, and that at some point it will start with channel letter lighting first, just as LED lighting did.

It is instructive to recall the initial resistance to the introduction of LEDs as a replacement for neon—lest some reader out there holds that reluctance to moving from the use of fluorescents in cabinet signs. Though it is doubtful many in the industry retain any resistance to this change when the economics make sense for them.

LED Economics

It doesn’t need to be stated that the material cost of fluorescent lamps and ballasts is less than that of the LED equivalent in most applications. But, as any journeyman sign builder can attest, the labor savings can often offset the additional cost of the LED components. There are enough programs where LED lighting is specified that many sign shops have experience with LED-lit cabinet signs, even if they still prefer to light their own cabinet signs with fluorescents.

The justification equation is almost too simple to need explanation. It is just the comparison of the total cost of materials, plus labor and its attendant overhead burden for each lighting type. Obviously, the labor to produce and install wiring raceways with sockets for a fluorescent-lit sign takes far longer than attaching any of the many LED lighting products for cabinets and running 24-volt secondary wiring. If the cabinet has an other-than-rectangular shape where a more complex raceway construction and multiple fluorescent tube lengths are required, LED lighting becomes an even more compelling choice. The same is true as the cabinets get larger, especially if one dimension is over 10’ and stacked raceways are required.

Most sign shops have long since developed the standards necessary to maintain the precision required to meet the tolerances of the choices of fluorescent tube lengths. But LED lighting has no such requirements. Generally, LED lighting products are flexible enough through their “cuttability” and lensing to accommodate pretty much any shape or size. One or more can even be placed on 24’ centers, adding to the inherent labor savings with LED lighting.  Though less apparent, this can make a difference when hiring and training new cabinet builders.  The new sign builder can become productive sooner than when being taught how to install fluorescent tubes. And, making a sizing error costs nothing, provided the faces still fit. Don’t laugh; you know it’s happened, just not at your shop!

Less Maintenance

It’s well established at this point that quality LED lighting requires less maintenance than fluorescents. And though many sign shops rely on service for a sizeable portion of their revenue, this aspect of LED lighting gives a shop a selling feature that can differentiate their signs from those of another still selling fluorescent-lit signs. And, if the shop gives a 1-year labor guarantee, the customer is not the only one that benefits from the superior reliability. This becomes even more important when the sign is difficult to service or is at a remote distance from the selling sign company. The reliability of LED lighting has prompted some sign shops to offer a 5-year parts and labor warranty on their signs. And this writer is aware of one with a 7-year warranty, including labor.

Since the mandating of solid state fluorescent ballasts, the electrical savings offered by LED lighting is less substantial but nonetheless significant. That savings doesn’t accrue to the sign builder but is still a selling feature when presenting to his client.

Lastly, fluorescents now carry an inherent risk of becoming an endangered item. With demand shrinking, the costs of fluorescent components will rise and procurement will be more difficult, as has occurred with neon. Selecting the more-costly LED solution is a hedge against an eventuality which may come sooner than you expect. And when it does, your customer will appreciate your foresight, and your relationship with them will be measurably enhanced.

Perhaps the most important reason to at least offer your clients the option of LED lighting for cabinet signs is that if you don’t and your competitor does, you are vulnerable. ‘Nuff said?

My Aim

Though much has already been written about lighting cabinets with LEDs, even quite recently in this magazine, my aim was for this article to still be worth your time. I hope you found it was. Even though I have no plans for an encore, I do welcome your comments and suggestions.